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Can the locale actually exert positive influence on artistic endeavors? Probably so, if it is anything like the spacious and exalted sanctuary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cary. There on an exceptionally beautiful Sunday afternoon, the celebrated bass-baritone James Longmire traversed no fewer than fourteen of this world’s finest art songs and spirituals. In all these efforts, his colleague and accompanist Susan Timmons lent powerful support, in some numbers as a truly equal partner.
After the opening Beethoven “In Questa Tomba Oscura,” he launched into three songs by the noted composer, Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). One of these was as splendid an art song as the literature affords. The text of “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” is lifted directly from Shakespeare’s play, Cymbeline. This moving “funeral song” declares that “Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweepers come to dust.” And at length in the pianissimo postscript: “Quiet consummation have, / And renownéd be thy grave.” The soloist captured all the drama in this great piece. In fact the performers became a “dramatic duo,” since the piano support rivaled the orchestral version that sometimes accompanies this song.
Another highlight of the afternoon was a virtual premiere performance, as far as practically anyone present was concerned. “I Dream a World” is from the opera Troubled Island by the eminent composer William Grant Still (1895-1978). (This opera dates from 1938, but was not performed until 1949. Since then it has been mysteriously neglected.) The composer’s daughter, Judith Still, graciously furnished a copy of the sublime song, its text by Langston Hughes. With its emotional sweep and message, one could imagine that it was written expressly for James Longmire. “I dream a world where man / No other man will scorn. / Where love will bless the earth / And peace its paths adorn.”
Featured after a brief intermission were four marvelous songs by Richard Strauss. (What song presentation would be complete without this composer?) The accompaniment for “Heimliche Aufforderung” (Secret Invitation) was particularly lush. But much the same could be said for the other three, and even for the piano reduction of “Si la rigueur” from the opera La Juive by the French composer J-F Halévy (1799-1862). Here Longmire was at his dramatic and musical best with this touching prayer-song: “Should hot revenge … make them forget thy sacred word?”
Spirituals arranged by the contemporary composer Uzee Brown, Jr. (b. 1950) closed the program. Here the singer could proclaim, “O Redeemed! (I am washed in the blood of the Lamb.) He asked, “O Mary, What you gonna call your Pretty Little Baby” (born in Bethlehem)? And he rejoiced that (I got a home in that Kingdom,) “Ain’t-a That Good News!” He rewarded his enthusiastic audience in high good humor with Aaron Copland’s “I Bought Me a Cat” (and the cat said fiddle eye fee).
If your taste runs to solid musicianship and drama, you are well advised to seek out the next appearance by James Longmire. And it would constitute an added bonus if it so happens that he is again supported by Susan Timmons.